Dec 20 – The Daily Star – by Simona Sikimic
MZAAR: Hundreds of skiing enthusiasts flocked to the mountains over the weekend for the unexpected early start of the ski season.
Many hotels were fully booked in anticipation and traffic stalled as vacationers sought to take advantage of the Ashura break and maximize their time on the slopes.
The recent storms may have lashed Lebanon and wreaked havoc on its infrastructure but they also dumped between one and three meters of snow on the two leading ski resorts, Cedars and Oyoun al-Siman.
Snowfall of this magnitude is not commonly seen until at least Christmas and last year was absent until early February, when Lebanon saw a mere five weeks of prime skiing, well down from the usual four-month long ski period that can last from early December to mid-April.
Lebanese skiing was born in the 1920s under the French mandate when colonials first started being ferried up the slopes on donkeys, with locals trustily carrying their ski equipment in tow.
The area’s reputation grew further during World War II when British soldiers ventured the 130 kilometers from Beirut to ski during reprieves in the fighting. But it was only after independence that the skiing scene truly came into its own, first in the Cedars and later in Oyoun al-Siman, which now boasts some 18 high-tech lifts connecting over 80 kilometers of slopes.
A 45-minute drive north from Beirut and a mere 20-minute drive from the coast, Oyoun al-Siman is seen as an ideal weekend getaway and is famous among foreigners as one of the only places in the world where a person can drive to a beach after skiing in the same day.
Resort nightspots, such as Bar Powder and Igloo, are already crammed with Beirut’s fashionable party crowd who turn the mountains into their personal playground each winter. With even more visitors expected over the holidays and school break, things are only set to get busier and those who were not foreword planning enough to book in advance may well be disappointed.
With its base station at 2,000 meters above sea level, the Cedars may be less well known these days, but with peaks exceeding 3,000 meters, it has the potential to host some of the best powder on offer and attracts its fair share of ski enthusiasts.
“Skiing in Lebanon can sometimes feel a little limited but it really does offer everything you need, even for the advanced skier,” said skier Yann Feghali. “The slopes can be challenging and if you are willing to be a little adventurous there is plenty of opportunity to go off slopes and do jumps and tricks.
“Over the last week I have checked the snow reports obsessively to find out when the slopes will open. The snow is surprisingly good for this time of year so I am going to make the most of it, especially as last year was very disappointing.”
While still outflanked by the lift technology and slope variety of many European resorts, tourists keen to experience something different are gradually recognizing Lebanon as a viable alternative.
Its generally more temperate climate, which provides more clear sunny days than other ski destinations and where temperatures rarely fall far below minus 5 degrees Celsius, is being flouted as a big attraction for foreigners keen to escape the biting cold spell currently hitting Europe.
“I’m totally enamored with Lebanon, to think that two weeks ago I was sunbathing on the beach and that now I am skiing in all this beautiful snow is just amazing,” said Emily Morris, an American tourist and first-time visitor to Oyoun al-Siman. “The mountains are simply beautiful and the resort itself is very European, it has much of the same charm.”
New Year’s celebrations are set to be epic with swarms of entertainers being shipped in to woo crowds and extravagant arrays of fireworks set to explode in a distinctly Lebanese fashion.
Snowmobiles, spas, movies, lingerie fashion shows and dauntingly large portions of Lebanese and European mountain food will also draw in a fair share of visitors, whatever the weather.